Agency of the Year: Mcgarrybowen

Old world, new times, slam dunk

It’s a win for the ages—literally. Mcgarrybowen, led by a trio of veteran admen who’ve been around the block and then around it again, has bested the competition with a new business run that added an estimated $66 million in revenue to its coffers—a 60 percent jump from 2010.

Three consecutive wins in just 11 weeks—Sears, Burger King, and United Continental—and project work on Bud Light supplied nearly half of the revenue gain for the nine-year-old shop. The rest came from new assignments on existing accounts, including Verizon Wireless, Kraft Foods, Chevron, and Marriott.

The self-described “populist” agency—whose work generally has an upbeat, glossy, and comforting aesthetic—is best known for its old-fashioned attention to relationship building and client service, an exceptional responsiveness, and a penchant for thinking beyond marketing briefs to consider all aspects of a company’s business. It’s also selective: This year alone it turned away seven new business opportunities, according to director of business development Brandon Cooke.

Marketing leaders at Verizon, Kraft, and United say Adweek’s U.S. Agency of the Year is personified by its gracious but tenacious CEO John McGarry. At 72, he has defied industry actuarial tables to top his first act as a premier account leader at Young & Rubicam.

“He exhausts me. He exhausts everybody here,” marvels his 43-year-old son, John McGarry III, who leads the shop’s digital offering. The CEO, along with the agency’s other co-founders—chief creative officer Gordon Bowen, 60, and chief strategic officer Stewart Owen, also 60—built mcgarrybowen after careers spent largely at big shops like Landor Associates, where Owen worked in the 1980s and early ’90s, and Ogilvy & Mather, where, in the ’80s, Bowen helped craft American Express’ iconic “Portraits” campaign.

Great year aside, it must be said that one thing hasn’t changed: The agency’s creative work still garners little respect from peers. A steady reliance on sentimentality, as exemplified by the regular use of emotive music, strikes some as hokey and formulaic. It’s not exactly what Cannes gold Lions are made of.

“We believe in the power of emotion. We’re not afraid of it,” Bowen explains. “Some agencies are too cool for school; we’re not.” Besides, he adds, “I don’t serve the advertising industry. . . . My job is to serve the brands by getting into their DNA and bringing out and enhancing—through all the art forms that are at our fingertips—their brand, their iconography, or their products, and to maximize their short- and long-term sales.”

For Sears and Burger King—which have suffered from prolonged sales erosion and are now using tactical work to generate foot traffic—that means TV ads that focus on product selection and ingredients, respectively. One Sears ad, “Realtor,” shows a couple touring a house and realizing it needs new appliances; a phone rings, connecting the husband to a Sears pitchman touting the deep selections. Its first BK ad, “Epic Prep,” featured slick close-ups of an onion, an avocado, and, finally, a beef patty on a flaming grill. Both brands are also developing broader brand image efforts that will break in Q1 2012. The agency wouldn’t discuss those ads.

The BK ads, for one, which launched in August, may already have helped the company’s bottom line. In Q3, same-store sales in North America improved from a 4.2 percent decline in 2010—when then-lead agency Crispin Porter + Bogusky was churning out quirky and, at times, bizarre work—to flat in the same period this year.

Another key to mcgarrybowen’s success, its holistic approach, could be seen in its pitch for United. Agency executives, for instance, suggested ways to improve customer service. They “have a focus on business problems, more so than the other agencies that we talked to,” says Mark Bergsrud, senior vice president of marketing at the merging airline. “[They used] their expertise in understanding consumers and what consumers react to, to improve our thinking about not only a new ad campaign, but also how we approach our business.” (The first campaign won’t break until the two airlines fully integrate their operations, most likely in March.)

Clients like Kraft and Verizon also cite the agency’s alacrity, collaborative spirit, and attention to detail as factors in the expansion of their relationships.

Mcgarrybowen added digital marketing responsibilities on Kraft Miracle Whip in August, and is now among Kraft’s most relied upon agencies, handling 18 brands five years after the agency joined the creative roster. Dana Anderson, svp of marketing, strategy, and communications at Kraft, says she appreciates the “old world way” that agency leaders tend to relationships as well as its “new world transparency and collaboration.” When a problem surfaces, she adds, “[McGarry] takes it very seriously. They react incredibly fast.”

In February, Verizon, a founding client that left amid an agency consolidation in 2007 only to return in 2009—awarded mcgarrybowen assignments in social media and multicultural marketing. The telecommunications giant is now one of its biggest accounts, supplying nearly a fifth of its total estimated revenue of $176 million.

Telcos like Verizon, some of which create more ads in a quarter than other marketers do in a year, require near-constant tending, particularly given that product launch plans often change on the fly.

“The top brass [at mcgarrybowen] down to the entry-level people on the account are all about the work, and I like that,” says John Harrobin, vp of marketing communications at Verizon Wireless. “They do a really good job at preserving a brand focus versus getting consumed within their own culture.”

Of course, the big question hanging over any agency with such hands-on, strong-willed leaders is, can the operation thrive without them? Certainly, few ad executives have the kinds of high-level connections in corner offices, boardrooms, investment firms, and CMO suites that McGarry does.

McGarry, whose idea of dressing down means donning a blazer and slacks instead of a suit, jokes that he’s “never going to die.” His son thinks his father will keep working at least another five years. “He’s probably the most relaxed when he’s here,” explains the younger McGarry, who’s known as “J3.”

(Admittedly, the New York headquarters is a comfortable place; occupying the bright, upper floors of a building on West 26th Street, the space overlooks the Hudson River and has three outdoor decks, which the shop uses for parties and impromptu barbecues.)

Finding a successor is less of an issue with the younger and more casually dressed Bowen, who delegates more anyway as the agency’s headcount grows. New York now employs about 600 staffers, up from 470 a year ago, compared to around 170 in Chicago (up from 80), which opened in 2007. Mcgarrybowen also has some dozen employees in London, and is eyeing other overseas markets as it moves to expand with help from parent company Dentsu, which acquired the shop in 2008.

In terms of next-generation leadership, McGarry points to New York CEO Bill Borrelle, 50; Chicago president Tim Scott, 55; Chicago CCO Ned Crowley, 47; and J3. But he has no intention of relinquishing the reins anytime soon. He hated the four idle years between leaving Y&R and opening mcgarrybowen, and this son of an oil company salesman says he’s proud to be an adman, and having the time of his life. “The possibilities for us are as big as our ambition—or as big as our dreams,” says McGarry. “And they’re both really big.”

Click the stickers below to see the winners: